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The Feedback: Judith Helfand's 'Love & Stuff'

By Tom White

Filmmaker Judith Helfand, with her adopted daughter Theo. From Helfand's 'Love & Stuff.'

One of filmmaker Judith Helfand’s earliest works, the Peabody Award-winning A Healthy Baby Girl, documents her diagnosis with cervical cancer—the result of a drug (diethylstilbestrol, or DES), that Helfand’s mother was prescribed to prevent miscarriage and ensure the health of her child. Decades later, Helfand underwent a radical hysterectomy, and while she was recovering at home, she started filming. A Healthy Baby Girl documents not only the love she and her mother shared, but also the filmmaker’s political awakening and commitment to community activism.

Some 25 years, many films and two organizations (Chicken & Egg Pictures and Working Films, both of which she co-founded) later, Helfand herself adopted a healthy baby girl—months after Helfand’s mother passed away. Love & Stuff, which began as a New York Times Op-Doc, evolved into a feature about loss and love and renewal and motherhood. Helfand incorporates scenes from A Healthy Baby Girl as well as cuts from home videos as a means to both honor and communicate with her mother and reinforce the filmmaker’s new role as a mother.

Love & Stuff screened as a work-in-progress at IDA’s DocuClub NY in June 2019. We caught up with Helfand via Google Hangout about revisiting old work, mothering, what she learned from the DocuClub screening, and her festival and virtual release strategies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: Was your New York Times Op-Doc piece the origin of the feature Love & Stuff?

JUDITH HELFAND:  Absolutely, yeah.

D: After you delivered that piece, did you think, “This really needs to be a feature?”

JH: Actually, to be quite honest, I said, “This really needs to be a series”—especially when my daughter arrived. Literally, we were finishing the Op-Doc when my daughter arrived. We were editing in what would become her future bedroom. We were editing in a room that was just piled high with my dead mother’s stuff, and then my daughter arrived. She was born on April 16, she came home on April 20, and then [the short] was due a week after. We actually still made the deadline, and then they aired it on Mother’s Day, which was a month later.

D: That is an amazing sequence of deliveries, so congratulations on that.

JH: The whole reason I was making the movie was to make up for the fact that this would be my first motherless Mother’s Day, without my mother. Then poof, I was a mother on Mother’s Day!

D: Talk about the process of transforming your idea for Love & Stuff from a series to a feature. 

JH: Actually, we tried to make it into a series for a long time. I really felt like the only way people could believe in the series was if we documented my life for a year or so, so we would be able to show progression, that there was transformation happening or a lack of transformation happening, that stuff was being moved, that I was learning how to become a mother at 50.

We started editing scenes as we went, and we tried to raise money. We did raise money, but we couldn’t find a platform. At a certain point, it’s very hard to raise money for a series if you don’t know what that platform would be. I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and say, “Well, let’s just put it on YouTube”—which would’ve been fine. People are doing that right now, and it’s very exciting and they’re building a big audience and they’re building their brand. But I didn’t want to do that. At some point, we brought the series to IFP, we got lots of interest from people, but often they would say, “Wow, if this was a feature, I would really be able to do something with this…If this was a feature, we could definitely bring it to our festival.”

Then we got an invitation to bring the film to the Catalyst forum at Sundance. Caroline Libresco, who was running it at the time, said, “We really don’t know how to pitch series yet, but we do know how to pitch a feature. Would you even consider turning it into a feature? Because if you would, we would be interested in bringing it.” At that point, my producers and Julie Parker Benello and Hilla Medalia looked at each other and said, “You know what? Let’s just do that.”

Of course, that was the year that Sundance started to bring series to the festival. I’m like, Really?  Was I really before my time here? Anyway, we wound up turning it into a feature, and I’m fine with that. I loved the experience of turning it into a feature; it’s a very different experience than trying to imagine a series. 

D: The feature worked so well in connecting past and present, and more so in creating a fluidity, where past is present. The catalyst of that was your second film, A Healthy Baby Girl. Twenty-five years have passed between Healthy Baby Girl and Love & Stuff. Talk about the idea of reviving that film, as it were, and of making that film a central character in Love & Stuff.

JH: At a certain point I said, “I don’t have my parents around to give me any wisdom or guidance on how to be a useful, mindful, loving mom. Boy, could I use them right now!” I do have this feeling that there are all these nuggets of wisdom, and they will talk to me if I could get them out of storage. At the time, Healthy Baby Girl, Blue Vinyl, Ek Velt—which was a short that I made that I launched on a DVD—all of that footage was in storage.

I never had enough money to get it out of storage. It had just added up over time and I owed them like, $9,000.00. We basically said, “You know what? This material is the equivalent of shooting, and this material is going to yield a very, very important thing for this movie. We’re gonna be able to create a very fluid conversation that I have over time with my parents.” I just had a feeling that we had to get that, so we liberated 25 years of footage, and then we brought it to a space that we used as our archival room. 

Then we reorganized all of it. These young archivists helped me do that. We had to go through everything and re-number it and reorganize it and understand what everything was and match my old logs. We couldn’t afford to transfer everything, but I was able to identify moments that I knew were really, really, really important. We transferred all of that, and then we created our hard drive from all of this newly digitized material. Then my incredibly brilliant editor—David Cohen, who I ultimately also gave the credit of co-director—and I also wrote the narration.  

He was really the first one to be looking at that material and looking for these amazing moments that could operate as a portal, and that somehow brought my mother and my father—and even me at a certain period of time—back into life, back into play. We just tried to use those as these really interesting portals to help us understand the arc of this story, and for me to be able to have the kind of communication that emotionally I feel like I have. That’s a very hard thing to translate into film. Having that material was this extraordinary way of being able to say, “This is what it’s like when they’re dead. There is a way to communicate with them.” I do it through the stuff, for sure, but the material helped us translate that idea.

D: Do you see Love and Stuff as a sequel of sorts to Healthy Baby Girl, or do you see it as a diptych where the two films interact with each other, along with interstitial pieces of footage you took in the 25 intervening years?

JH: That’s an interesting way to think about it. I’ve thought well, there’s Healthy Baby Girl and then I made Blue Vinyl and then I made Ek Velt. I feel like this is the fourth in the series. We made this movie so that you wouldn’t have to necessarily see those other movies together. I do think that they’re in conversation with each other, for sure. Certainly the story inside of Healthy Baby Girl is kind of the inciting moment that worked its way throughout my life with my mother.

One of the other things I really wanted to be able to explore was, There are certain things that happen in your life that you don’t really get over. You just grow old with them. My mother felt really guilty towards the end of her life. That was one reason I wanted to adopt a child, so that she could see me with that baby. Timewise, it didn’t exactly work out. Based on everything that you could see in the movie, my mother didn’t want me to be mothering within 24 hours of losing her. She wanted me to be able to grieve. I think Theo came at the exact right extraordinary, crazy moment. I owe that to my mother. She’s a very powerful dead lady.

D: When you ask her in both films, “How do you live without your mother?” she responds, “You do. You learn to.” That could also be the answer to, “How do you be a mother?” Is there something innate, or something that’s learned, or something that you learn on your own about mothering?

JH: I actually think that my daughter is teaching me how to be a mother. The older she gets, the more that I’m learning. The irony is, I feel like my mother is inside my daughter. I’ll be working late in the living room, and all of a sudden I’ll hear these little feet. She’ll look at me and she’ll go, “You need to go to bed.” Or she’s like, “Mom, you need to play with me. You need to get on the floor and play with me every day for an hour.” It’s as if my mother is nit-picking with me. 

It is innate, but it’s also definitely something that’s learned. I know for many people it’s the natural way of things. If you do things at the right time and in the right age, your mother or your father, if you’re lucky enough and if you’re getting along with them and you want them around, they’re there to give you some guidance. You might resent the guidance, but they’re there. I think that was the other thing that I was looking for in making this movie: I wanted the guidance.

D: You find those moments in the footage when you’re looking for guidance and when you’re looking love and wisdom from your mother. There are these past moments in the footage that are perfect responses. In those 25 years since Healthy Baby Girl, you developed your career as a filmmaker, activist and educator, and as a mother. What did you see in that film, having had that time and distance to grow as a human?  

JH: There’s a lot of joy in that movie. There’s joy in the cutting room stuff. What I learned from Healthy Baby Girl is, That is the ultimate act of mothering. My mother did not want to be in that movie, but she knew that that’s what I needed to do to heal.

I really had to make something out of it. I had to use it. I had to ensure that I did not have a radical hysterectomy and cancer in vain. I wanted to show the world what grief looks like in relationship to long-term toxic chemical exposure, and what the long arm of corporate greed looks like. The only way I could do that was because my mother said yes and committed herself to that, even at moments when it was really, really, really hard.

Looking at that movie 25 years later, I’m amazed at how generous my mother is and how giving she is, and how much she understood that artists need to make art out of tragedy. We have to work it through and we need to take our time to do it. Authentic storytelling heals. It heals the person who gets to do it, and it heals a lot of other people, too. I’m grateful to her for saying yes, because it was really not her way. Now I have to feel grateful for my daughter saying yes.

D: Your mother was reluctant to be in that film, but she’s been in a lot of your films, as well as in home movies. And she does ask you to put the camera down, in certain instances. What is the camera to you and your relationship with your mother? I would say that it’s a means to keep her alive and enable a conversation; the camera is such an inexorable part of you. 

JH: I think you’re right. In Healthy Baby Girl, it was preservation. That camera was just pure preservation. It was a reminder to me that I was part of a trajectory and a period of history and a very dark moment in time when pharmaceutical companies and agri-chemical companies could do whatever the hell they want. 

For me, the camera represented that the DES story, along with so many other stories and toxic chemical experiences, had to be a part of the public record.

I was using it like that, and it was a way for me to make art and lemonade out of lemons, and it was a way for me to communicate with my mother. Maybe it was a safeguard, like she started talking to the camera, and maybe it won’t get too painful. Or maybe it will get painful, but we’ll be able to handle it because we have this camera here.  

It worked as an intermediary. But by the time we were done with Love & Stuff, my daughter was done with the camera. I think for my daughter it’s like the camera represents that she’s not alone with mommy, and she just wants to be alone with mommy.

D: You go through your mother’s stuff in Love & Stuff, and it’s a painful process to determine what to keep what to let go. It seemed like the obvious metaphor for documentary filmmaking. 

JH: I think it’s a perfect metaphor, but it wasn’t me going through the stuff so much as my editors really painstakingly working to understand how to put this puzzle together. The duo was Marina Katz and David Cohen. They’re really exceptional, exceptional editors. It was a puzzle.  Sometimes it was the archival material, sometimes it was the narration, sometimes it was the stuff. All these different elements at all times; one would lead the other.

D: About your Docu Club screening in June 2018, was that your first public screening? What were your expectations going into that screening?

JH: Docu Club was the first public screening that we’d ever done.  

My expectations were—honestly, when you put yourself in a movie, the first thing that you need to know is, Am I likeable? Am I trustworthy? Do you trust this voice? Do you want to go on this trip with me? Does it ever feel too personal or personal in a way that is rubbing you the wrong way? Are you interested? Is this universal, or very, very, very specific? I went in trying to understand those things.

The movie changed a lot since that screening. It was very comforting to know that people were moved, that people loved the juxtaposition, that they could go on the trip with us.

D: What did you find from the observations or notes that was most surprising and unexpected?

JH: They did not think it was too personal, they did not think there was too much narration, and they liked me. They thought the voiceover was one of the strongest elements throughout. We had found the right tone; they laughed at all the right places. 

I think we learned that there was too much mothering process with Theo. We didn’t need the drama of letting go of her pacifier (it was horrific); they did not need as much struggle as we had offered. They wanted to see less struggle and more resolution. 

I think maybe what I was surprised at was that people just universally loved going on this trip.  They appreciated the arc, and they also seemed to appreciate that this was a story about life as a work in progress. The one note that I got that was really good was that somebody said, “I really want to learn something by the end of this and I want to feel your wisdom.” It took a long time to figure out the end. 

D: When you went back to the edit room after that screening, what were the key changes you made?

JH: We took out a lot of extreme parenting and in removing more, we got more breathing room, We pushed the mother-daughter relationship between me and Theo. We removed the scene with my rabbi; we condensed the weight-loss and surgery scenes; and we focused on really working with the relationship between the archival material and the present. Once we had more space, thanks to removing a lot of scenes, we were able to focus on relationships—which pushed us ultimately to create a totally new opening.

D: What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for its festival premiere?

JH: This is a movie that you could just cut forever. You could include a lot more parenting. You could let Theo grow up more. There’s a lot of things that you could put in, but at the end of the day, it is what it is and it’s always gonna be that. This is an intergenerational love story where I’m trying to learn how to parent in the wake of losing my parent. It’s about making peace with goodbye. 

There was a lot of stuff that just didn’t make it into this movie because at a certain point, it was a container. It didn’t need any more because it was telling the story it needed to tell.  

D: Was Hot Docs your festival premiere?

JH: It was.

D: What was the decision-making process in determining that you would go for a virtual, rather than live, festival premiere?

JH: This is the year that our movie is gonna come out. We weren’t gonna hold it back and try again for 2021. I guess that could’ve been an option, but it didn’t feel like that was the right thing to do. It really felt like we might be inside for a very long time, and how can this hurt us? I couldn’t imagine a way that it really could hurt us. We got really good press. I had some great interviews on the radio and on a podcast. We had a really nice introduction. I didn’t get to have that experience with that live audience there, and I was sorry about that. But I will be having that this coming Sunday as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Then we’re going to Woods Hole, which has this amazing moment in the movie, because that’s where I got the first phone call that there was a baby for me, when I was doing a workshop there in August of 2013.  

I feel like this movie is a very poignant film to be watching in your home, if you’re surrounded by things that had belonged to your parents or if you’re not able to see your parents right now and you’re just having a relationship over Zoom or WhatsApp. I feel like this movie is a meditation on love.

It really showcases my good fortune to be able to be with my mother at the end of her life and help her die, and do home hospice and have a real funeral and have real Shiva, and have community around me at these very amazing moments. When my daughter came home and I was going through stuff, this is a moment when we’re craving community. We can’t have it the way we want it; we can’t have it face to face. We both need to remember what that was like and not let the new normal become the only normal. We also have to remember how hard it is for people who are grieving, and how we have to show up for them even more because they are grieving alone.

No one’s getting the kind of funeral and the kind of community that they need right now. I feel like the movie is a really good reminder of what’s normal. If you’re lucky enough to help your parent die, this is a great way to do it. I’m sorry that you can’t have that right now, but don’t ever forget that a) you don’t deserve it, and b) we have to figure out how to recreate that virtually until we can be together face to face. 

D: You mentioned missing in-person audience interchange. Have you gotten the kind of feedback from audiences in your virtual screenings and Q&As? 

JH: I didn’t get to do a Q&A with Hot Docs, but what we did do, thanks to [my publicist], is we created a friends and family/colleague screening on Zoom. We asked this amazing guy named David, who runs a great podcast in Canada, to be the MC and moderator. What was unfortunate about it is it was just me and him. It was kind of like live radio and everyone was throwing their questions into the chat. I didn’t get to have that exchange with them the way I would’ve loved to, but it was still really quite wonderful.

One thing that I did do that I am hoping to be able to do, is, as part of a festival called Reimagine: Life, Loss & Love, I did a workshop called Love, Stuff & Zoom. It was all about helping elders and young people with elder parents to think about how to do what I call a “stuff review” and use the act of going through stuff with your parent online.  

It’s a way to create community engagements, and I’m hoping to launch them with the community screenings practiced with this movie, and do them with communities of people that see each other, that are part of each other’s life cycle in synagogues and churches. People that really want to be thinking about how to use this moment together in a meaningful way, and leverage those opportunities with their parents while they’re still alive.

D: What is your rollout strategy beyond the festival circuit?

JH: We’re figuring it out. Right now, we’re working with Cinetic and a whole bunch of different kinds of people, including Kino Lorber and others are looking at the movie. Selling out of Hot Docs was not really happening. It’s a slower process. It’s gonna go through the summer and into the fall, I imagine. We would love a combination of public television and an international platform. I would love to do a digital theatrical. 

D: What advice would you offer to filmmakers who are completing their films and looking ahead to the fall festival circuit into Sundance?

JH: I would say, If you could wait for 2021, wait. But I think while you’re thinking about your engagement, you have to think of two kinds of engagement. You have to think about a virtual engagement strategy, and you have to think about the kinds of partners and institutions and organizations that would benefit from collaborating with you. You have to start thinking about who your really strategic audience is that you want to reach. Then you need to figure out what is gonna be the model for how to reach them. I think the beautiful part of a digital strategy is, you can include people that you’ve never been able to include before.

The cost for them is not a big issue. Getting to an elite film festival is not gonna be the issue for them. You’re gonna be able to bring people together and do really interesting events. You just have to be open to them. 

I think it’s a time to be very creative. People are at home and people have time. As much as people are sick of the screen, they are not sick of building community and they’re not sick of really good, engaged conversations. I think for anyone who’s working right now, maybe do some virtual screenings with the kinds of discrete audiences that you’re interested in. See how this movie flies with them. See if you could start to imagine and understand what kind of virtual campaigns are going to be going on. Where does your movie fit?

Who needs to see it? Get it in front of them sooner than later. Imagine a strategy that is very collaborative. Don’t think about it as a loss. Think about it as a gain, that you have access to a lot more people.

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.